Tomorrowland: the role of technology in city planning

Words by
Xanthy Jones
Photography by
Meixi Lake and Songdo images, courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox

17th February 2015

The world of tomorrow is a future of driverless cars, rejuvenating green spaces and hi-tech domesticity used to belong to the pages of science fiction, but wired and eco-friendly “smart cities” are fast becoming a reality.

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An artist’s impression of Meixi Lake in Changsha, China, due to be completed in 2020

An artist’s impression of Meixi Lake in Changsha, China, due to be completed in 2020

Imagine a city with no cars, but instead white driverless pods silently whizz along the roads. A place that generates its own power, where buildings turn off their lights, kitchen appliances moderate their energy consumption and offices are fitted with telepresence screens to enable you to participate in real-time client meetings or even remote health check-ups with a specialist in another country.

Picture a city where there is practically no crime because a benevolent Big Brother is watching your every move and responding to emergencies in an instant. An urban centre that has been designed to be highly liveable thanks to the perfect balance of green space, water, fresh air, walkable streets and aesthetically pleasing architecture. 

Before you dismiss this as an implausible vision of a futuristic utopia, let us introduce you to Songdo, Meixi Lake, Masdar City and Wave City—four such cities, already in existence.

These “smart cities”, as they are known, are the product of innovative developers, architects and technology companies such as Gale International, Foster and Partners and IBM. And the plan is, once these prototypes have been successfully tried and tested, the blueprints will be used to replicate them around the globe.

In the early 1980s, there were about 4.5 billion people on this planet. Today, there are an estimated seven billion people—with more than 60 per cent living in Asia.

In India, an average of 30 people move from the countryside every minute and flood into urban centres.

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Masdar City in Abu Dhabi features a transit system of driverless pods

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi features a transit system of driverless pods

By 2050, there could be 11 billion of us—so it is perhaps no surprise that China is crying out for 500 and India 300 of these flat-pack cities, just to cater to demand. And with each one potentially costing $30bn, it’s a huge business opportunity. 

One day soon, you may find yourself visiting, working or even living in a smart city, so what are they like?

In the case of Songdo, a South Korean “aerotropolis” (or airport city) just 20 minutes from Incheon International, it has replicated the best features of existing cities, such as the canals of Venice, the green residential squares of Savannah in Georgia and New York’s Central Park, complete with 99 acres of trees, running paths, deer and freshly mown grass. There’s even a lake with rowing boats and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

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The Chadwick International School in Songdo, South Korea, serves some of the 20,000 residents currently in the city

The Chadwick International School in Songdo, South Korea, serves some of the 20,000 residents currently in the city

Built on tidal flats on the shores of the Yellow Sea, Songdo has clusters of shimmering glass and steel skyscrapers, including the 68-floor NEATT Tower, the tallest in the country. Work is due to be completed in the next few years, by which point Songdo is expected to house 65,000 people, as well as attract 300,000 commuters.

However, at the moment there are only about 20,000 residents so its pristine streets and multi-lane roads are strangely quiet. 

The brainchild of ambitious American Stan Gale, and designed by architectural agency Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), Songdo was inaugurated in 2009, and is, at $35bn, one of the most expensive private real-estate ventures in history.

At $35bn, Songdo in South Korea is one of the most expensive private real-estate ventures

The site is not only anticipated to become a key business hub for South-East Asia, but aims to be an ideal place to relocate a family or set up a business as the world of tomorrow thanks to its art centres, schools, shopping malls, restaurants, music conservatory, museum of contemporary art, 25km of bike lanes and contemporary housing.

This “smart connected community” has been created with sustainability at the fore. Numerous measures have been taken to help achieve its goal of emitting two-thirds less greenhouse gas emissions than an existing city of its size, as well as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation for its buildings.

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Songdo, on the shores of the Yellow Sea, is expected to become a key business hub for South-East Asia

Songdo, on the shores of the Yellow Sea, is expected to become a key business hub for South-East Asia

There are also plans to unveil a centralised “brain”, whereby IT partner Cisco is planning to connect cameras throughout the city to a single HQ that could monitor streets and public spaces for added safety. 

The trend for “ubiquitous computing” and the wifi-enabling of everyday objects means that one day soon, for example, you could use your smartphone to book a parking space, while your fridge is emailing you a shopping list.

In the future, omniscient “nervous systems”—be they for personal security, transport co-ordination, energy consumption or communication—will be retro-fitted in cities that have grown organically over many decades (London, Amsterdam, New York, Moscow and Toronto have also been working with Cisco), or built from scratch in pop-up hubs. In Abu Dhabi, another forward-thinking project is underway.

Designed by UK architects Foster and Partners, five-sq km Masdar City is hoping to become the world’s first “carbon-neutral” urban centre, as it is powered by the sun and entirely free of petrol-hungry cars.

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A CGI rendering of Masdar City, 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi, which aims to have 40,000 residents by 2025

A CGI rendering of Masdar City, 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi, which aims to have 40,000 residents by 2025

Instead, it has created a science fiction-esque Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system of automated bubble vehicles that speed you around at 40km/ph along a network of magnets embedded in the tarmac.

Other smart credentials include a Green Data Centre that controls energy and water, so if you leave a tap running, the eco police will know and be able to turn it off. Costing more than $20bn, and set for completion over the next few years, the city will also be a nucleus for learning, with international university campuses and research centres for the world’s greatest minds.

Much of it is still under construction, a mess of cranes and dust beneath the glaring sun. Despite the 50-degree heat in summer, however, its pedestrianised streets are cool and calm, thanks to wind gates that regulate air flow, plants, water features and shaded colonnades.

The Masdar Institute for Technology and Design has already been unveiled, while Siemens is building a Centre of Excellence for Smart Buildings, and General Electric is planning an “eco-imagination centre”. By 2025 Masdar is expected to have 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters.

The five-sq m Masdar City is hoping to become the first “carbon neutral” urban centre in the world

Modelled on Songdo, Gale International is also working on bringing to life a second experimental project, Meixi Lake in Changsha, located in the Hunan province of China.

Again designed by KPF, and due to be completed in 2020, the seven-sq km site will have a 40-hectare lake at its heart. Surrounding it will be gardens, micro farms, natural landscaping and a high-rise central business district all connected by waterways serviced by boats, pedestrianised streets and trams.

As well as integrated sustainable design such as rainwater harvesting, solar thermal energy, a smart grid and energy-efficient housing to make it eco-friendly, it will be home to 180,000 residents in eight unique “neighbourhood clusters”.

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Masdar’s pedestrianised streets will be kept cool, thanks to wind gates that regulate air flow, plants water features and shaded colonnades

Masdar’s pedestrianised streets will be kept cool, thanks to wind gates that regulate air flow, plants water features and shaded colonnades

In India’s state of Utter Pradesh, IBM is combining forces with local business group Wave Inc to give birth to another thinking, eco centre known as Wave City.

The 18sq km “ultra modern township” will also have a centralised command post whereby, for example, messages can be sent to residents’ personal devices updating them on traffic problems, parking availability and disruptive sporting events.

Other proposed features include mechanised street cleaning, pollution-free mass rapid transport system, and wifi connectivity throughout. The first phase is due to be up and running in 2016. Smart living is already taking off around the world.

This means, over the next few decades, we can look forward to a more intelligent way of colonising our own planet, and perhaps even open doors to other new places to explore.